For artisanal cheese to obtain its flavor, it must be aged in a perfect environment. The ultimate environment is a cave, such as the caves in the Franche Comté region in eastern France where large hard rounds of Comté cheese are aged. If you don’t have a cave, you can build one — just as Max and Amy Breiteneicher did at Grace Hill Farm in Cummington, MA.
Their cave is built above ground and attached to the milking parlor, bulk tank room and cheese-making room, all enclosed in a 40 by 30 feet building. The cave’s temperature is controlled at 50 degrees with 80 to 90 percent humidity, the ultimate environment for cheese to ripen, says Max, both enhancing and maintaining the flavor of their raw milk cheese.
This is the first year that he has worked fulltime at his farm. He began learning about milk and cheese and how to handle cows in 2004 as one of Jasper Hill Farm’s first interns, where they built their own caves underground. He travelled to France where cheese is housed in real caves, but that was before his personal quest of learning about cheese. However, he has always loved cheese. Working at a variety of “regular jobs,” he was always “into agriculture.”
After working at a number of special farms, he and his wife Amy wanted one of their own. Realizing there weren’t many cheese makers around, they made their niche in Cummington.
In 2012, they bought land once used as both a sheep and dairy farm that belonged to the Dawes/Thayer family since the 1700s. “I really enjoy having a farm here,” said Max.
“It’s really nice to have a home-based family business so both of us can work, both from home and close to our animals,” said Amy as she sells cheese at the Farmers Market in Northampton, MA. They offer their most popular Hilltown Blue, Wild Alpine — a gruyere-type hard cheese, an English-style clothbound cheddar and one called Cheesecake.
They found there are no grants for starting up a farm and that one must already own a farm to get a grant, a catch-22 that meant they built their farm unassisted by grants.
With grand results, as of this year, he is making 200-pounds of cheese a week. First it has to age. Then it is sold at the farmers market, 21 local stores and restaurants. Besides the farmers market, Amy handles the deliveries. “Generally, every cheese has a standard recipe, depending on what you want. You can tweak it, with a decent amount of trial and error, to make the cheese you want. It will be a great many years before it (making cheese) becomes really intuitive,” said Max. Meanwhile, customers clamor for their cheese made from the raw milk of their 10 milkers — three Normandes and seven Ayrshires — all intelligent, incredibly hardy and exclusively grass-fed.
A seasonal dairy, they start milking when the cows calve in April and dry them off in November, so the cows spend the winter resting, eating and in-calf, resulting in less wear and tear over winter, both on cows and the couple, not having to face bitter winds on the way to milking.
Because they don’t milk or make cheese in winter, this year they had a two-week gap between availability of their Hilltown Blue and have more orders than he can fill because they ran out of it. By mid-June, Max had made 10 batches of Hilltown Blue, currently aging.
On a recent morning, Max milked the cows at 5:30a.m. Their milk was pumped into a cheese vat — a hard to find 400-liter Dutch La Van Zijll Zuivelgereedschappen vat, inside the ultra-clean cheese room. By 10:00 a.m. max was finishing up another batch, “The reason we don’t hold it (the milk) more than 24 hours is it makes way better cheese,” he said. The harder the cheese, the longer it is stirred and heated, provided by water in the vat. Since blue cheese has relatively high moisture content, it stays at its original 32-degree temperature and is not heated. “Don’t want to over-stir it, keep parameters as close to perfect as possible,” said Max, utilizing a vacuum pump to pump out the whey.
Besides enhancing flavor, having the cave to age cheese helps adhere to regulations. They don’t pasteurize their milk so they legally must age their cheese 60 days. According to Max, this standard was determined by a 1950s test, where cheese was tested with E-coli in it and the E-coli died within 60 days. This limits the variety of cheese that Max can make, including softer cheeses like Brie or Camembert, or any of the spreadable cheeses. “It would be nice to make those cheeses,” he said.
Whatever the regulations, the cheese itself determines its own aging requirements; blue cheese takes two to five months, gruyere and cheddar cheeses require one year.
They also sell some eggs and raw milk at the farm.
In the future Max plans on raising pigs and feeding them whey, but that’s on hold until their baby is born. Meanwhile, he’s happily shaping cheeses in the cheese-making room.